Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Black U.S. Navy Experience

Destroyer (1943, Columbia Pictures)

Happy Memorial Day, everybody! 

This is a lovely movie starring Edward G. Robinson and Glenn Ford. It’s fairly entertaining as a patriotic wartime Navy movie, but it’s more interesting for what it does not show. In the movie, the crew of the ship is all white, whereas in the real Navy in 1943 that would not have been the case.

Even before World War II there were black sailors on almost all Navy ships. They became more numerous as the war progressed, because there were a vast number of new ships that needed crews.

The American military was still segregated at the time. It was possible in the Army to keep the troops separated and assign them tasks that would prevent them from rubbing shoulders, but that luxury was only partially available to the Navy. A Navy crew all live in the same house, so to speak, and they are forced to rub shoulders every day. They could still be segregated as to their tasks, though, and that much was done.

Blacks in the Navy only had a few rates available to them, all involving the preparation or serving of food. They could be cooks, commissarymen, or stewards. The special nature of Navy life at war meant that this attempt at separation would routinely fall apart in a war zone. Everyone on a ship was assigned to a battle station and drilled in tasks associated with actual sea battles. The black sailors were most often assigned to help with treating casualties, becoming assistants to corpsmen and pharmacist’s mates. Some were assigned to helping with the flow of ammunition to gun positions, which was a busy situation when the shells started flying.

In other words, the black sailors were not on the ships only to handle food and say, “yes, sir.” They were actively engaged in battle when the time came. They had a clear role in “fighting the ship.” Under threat of death, the crew suspended animosities and temporarily overlooked race as an issue.

It is to be assumed that many of the white crewmembers would be ill disposed to their black shipmates under ordinary circumstances, like back at home. But the crew of a warship in a hot-zone is operating under the most unusual of circumstances. It has been said that going to sea in a ship, even in peacetime, is like being in prison with the additional danger of drowning. Multiply this danger by a thousand when enemy submarines, aircraft and surface combatants are making every sincere effort to destroy your ship, with you in it. The crew literally has no one but themselves to rely on in that situation.

I’ve read a lot of books about the Naval aspect of World War II in the Pacific, and I have never come across an episode of tension between white and black sailors when they had to work together in battle. On the contrary, more than one writer has commented on the fact that there was never a drop of animosity when a black commissaryman was performing duties like applying a tourniquet to the stump of a blown off leg and administering a shot of morphine to a white sailor from Alabama. In fact, it is noted that none of the white boys complained and that the black sailors generally acted with great kindness and gentleness. Up to and including one reported scene where a delirious, dying white sailor begged his black shipmate to, “hold me, momma!” The black cook held the man while he died, and survived the war to report this incident to a historian.*

Hollywood missed a small chance by leaving the black sailors out of the movie “Destroyer.” I’ll give them a pass, though, because they did step up to the plate on many opportunities. Like they did in “The Bedford Incident,” which I’ve also reviewed up on this blog. (Word search available.) The role of Life photographer in that movie went to Harry Belafonte after it had been written for a white actor. They didn’t change a thing, so the effect was that there was a black man on the ship being a bit of a pain in the ass and no one mentions that he’s black. That was cool. Also in that movie, the officers’ wardroom is correctly shown to be served by numerous Filipino stewards. In 1970, seven years after the Bedford Incident was released, 80% of Filipinos in the U. S. Navy were still stewards, dressed in white linen and serving the officers’ meals. (Sorry, I forgot to write down the citation for that number. The phenomenon is described in detail all over the Internet, though.) I should try to find something about the role of Filipino stewards at general quarters.

*I’ve read five substantial books recently about the Pacific war, but I can’t recall exactly where this incident was described. It’s hard as hell to find specific passages in Kindle versions. The authors were James Hornfischer and Ian Toll. All of the books were terrific, perhaps especially “Neptune’s Inferno” by Hornfischer.  It’s in there somewhere.    

No comments: